Queering a Region: #altAtlCan

When beginning my research process for an MA, I took a bunch of stuff that interested me and smushed them together into one topic. As a gay theatre artist from Atlantic Canada who now lives and studies in Ontario, I’ve decided to look at how Atlantic Canada as a region can be viewed as queer through analyzing various productions, and how that queering can affect its national perspective.

Herb Wyile has a great book titled Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature. I brought it up in class once and people are still laughing… It’s a good title. In it, he discusses the complicated economic issues that have come up post-Confederation. The tourism industries in each Atlantic province have been “aggressively engaged in branding their provinces as leisure destinations” (Wyile 137). Tourism centering on Folk ideology and leisurely lifestyles has turned from a generous commodity to a dire necessity. Historically, the provinces were once booming with a successful natural resource supply independent of a “Central Canada”. The Maritimes entered Confederation in order to resist ties to the US, maintain ties with Britain, and develop a more diversified economy. Of course, as Wyile writes, that decision came with a number of issues. He quotes Philip Buckner who wrote that Maritimers had little enthusiasm for “a scheme of union that seemed primarily designed to benefit the United Province of Canada” (10). Unfortunately, those fears have proven to be valid.

Newfoundland and Labrador entered into Confederation later, as we know, and we are still seeing some major implications of that (arguably necessary) decision. Atlantic Canada faces a huge migration problem, with limited high-paying job options and a growing senior demographic. Central Canada lessened their commitment to the Intercolonial, and there remains a double standard in economic policy: An issue for Central Canada is seen as a “national” issue, and any issue in Atlantic Canada is seen as “regional”. It’s “their problem” for not keeping up.

It’s important for me to keep in mind that regionalism is a social construct: an identity not necessarily based on anything fundamentally stable. Another important feature here is the imagined binary between “Central” and “Atlantic” Canada. My goal in this research is to erode that binary and question the identity. And what better place to begin than through the lens of queer theory?

Peter Dickinson beautifully demonstrates the relationship between nationalism and sexuality in his book Here is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada. His queering of Canadian literature provides us with a powerful tool, as it blurs the binaries that many people don’t realize are inherent in the country’s history and culture. Canada’s history, and the history of nation building in general, is based on questions of inside/outside and figure/ground, rooted in a heterosexual and gendered matrix. Elaine Pigeon has a great article about Tremblay’s Hosanna! which demonstrates the potential of theatre to interrogate these binaries. “Hosanna! Michel Tremblay’s Queering of National Identity” explores how the play highlights nationalism being closely imbricated with what Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality.”

I suppose what I’m doing with my project is much like what Tremblay did in his framing of Quebec. In associating the identity of Atlantic Canada with queerness, artists have the potential to communicate something other than the hokey-pokey, leisure-centred stereotypes associated with the provinces. These stereotypes perpetuate themselves, as the tourism industry relies heavily on framing Atlantic Canada as “quaint” and a “relaxing retreat” for economic reasons. The locals are often viewed as backwards and behind on the times, but the truth is far more complex and interesting than that. Theatre and performance, I argue, have the potential to reframe the national understanding of the region.

What I’m avoiding is a clearly defined “us vs. them”. Instead, what I’m looking for is what Leo Bersani lays out in his book Homos. We should be privileging our “near-sameness” (what he prefers to call “homo-ness”). I’m looking for works that help eliminate the binary, and no longer allow a focus on the “Norm” versus the “Other”. How can theatre show Canadians the characteristics we share, despite the vast amount of geographical space between us?

Do you agree that there is potential for theatre to do so? If you do, how are we already seeing that idea taking shape? Are there artists or companies that stand out to you in reframing the national perspectives of Atlantic Canada, or other “regions” of the country? Do you disagree? If so, why can’t theatre be used to entertain that notion? TWEET your answers to me, @l_dbrown, with the hashtag #altAtlCan, or simply comment on this post.

One major component in all of this that I haven’t blatantly touched on yet is the use of digital media. I’m very drawn to the work of Praxis, SpiderWebShow, and Adrienne Wong and Dustin Harvey’s LANDLINE (to name a few). These works (and even what I’m doing right now: bloggin’ ‘bout it) could provide some major support for my claims.

Stay tuned for more posts, some podcasts, interviews, etc. etc. I’d love to receive input of any kind, and to spark a general conversation.

xo Luke

PS Check out the bibliography HERE, and feel free to comment with your own ideas for texts/performances/companies to look into.

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